Following the albatross: a journey to the sub-Antarctic
Photos & essay by Tobias Hayashi
I stand on top of Campbell Island, surrounded by ocean, 700 km south of New Zealand’s Invercargill. Behind me, the boardwalk snakes down from Col Lyall saddle, winding through tussock, megaherb and Dracophyllum shrubland down to the unused researchers huts by Perseverance Harbour. In front of me, a snowy white albatross sits on her nest, dozing. Her nest is quite close to the boardwalk, perhaps 2 meters, but she looks as if nothing in the world could perturb her. A few walkers squeeze past me and she opens an eye but she soon closes it again as the walkers move on.
I slowly take in the landscape around me. The saddle is sheltered to the west by cliffs which bear the brunt of the constant westerlies. There are few shrubs up here, just large grass tussocks the size of wheelie bins. A bit further up the hill, in the lee of the cliffs, there is a spot where giant carrots, lilies and daisies vie for space in such dense proximity as to form a kind of megaherb garden. Dotted throughout the tussock and megaherb are white birds, spread evenly across the sheltered saddle, never too close together. I’ve finally made it. This is the breeding ground of the Southern Royal Albatross.
My journey to Campbell Island started in Canberra in 2009. It was my final year of high school. At my school, a Steiner school, all Year 12 students were required to do an independent project for the year, in addition to normal coursework, but on a topic completely of their own choosing. The project wasn’t marked, but required a thesis and a 40-minute presentation at the end of the year. Some of my friends reconnected with family history, others did dance choreography, yet others got the whole school involved in reducing rubbish and promoting recycling. I chose to do mine on albatrosses. I think I was getting a bit bored of birding around Canberra, and albatrosses were an adventure, a free spirit to chase.
Throughout that year, I went on day-long boat trips from Wollongong and Sydney. In winter, albatrosses visit the southern coasts of Australia, following the colder water that comes up from the Southern Ocean.
I saw a lot of albatrosses that year. Watching them, I was struck by the freedom these birds seem to embody. It seemed unfathomable to me, that a bird could spend years at a time at sea without ever having to visit land. Doing some research on albatross life history, I discovered that the larger albatross, like the royal and wandering albatrosses, fledge and spend the first 5 or 6 years of their life completely at sea. For them, land is an inconvenience, or at least totally unnecessary in day-to-day life.
Of course, they do need to visit land eventually: to breed. And when they do, they pick the remotest islands they can find. Islands like Macquarie, Amsterdam, Auckland, Campbell, or South Georgia. These uninhabited islands sit in middle of the roaring forties and furious fifties, between the sub-tropical and Antarctic convergences, where the wind is always strong and the food is plentiful.
Going on day-trips to see a bird so completely of the open ocean felt like we were just scratching the surface. Every day we would motor out and the albatross would appear from nowhere, and when it came time we would turn around and head back to shore and the albatross would disappear again off into the horizon. Where do they come from and where do they go? I remember that year flipping through Tui de Roy’s fabulous albatross book and seeing images from another world, where albatrosses displayed and nested on small islands in the middle of the ocean.
I made a promise to myself at the end of that year to go and visit the albatrosses at their island homes, and to see them out in the open ocean surrounded by nothing but sea.
The opportunity to fulfil this promise came about much sooner than I had expected. A friend of mine recently told me about her experiences visiting the sub-Antarctic with support from the Enderby Trust scholarship, and encouraged me to apply. I’m glad she did, because a year later I was offered a scholarship on board the Heritage Expeditions Forgotten Islands cruise to the Snares, Auckland and Campbell Islands, departing 14th December 2017.
The Enderby Trust scholarship was set up by Heritage Expeditions founder Rodney Russ, who saw it as an opportunity to give young people (18-30) the chance to visit and spread the word about Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. Price is a significant impediment to most, so the Trust subsidises the trips by 70%, while participants pay the remaining 30%. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to visit these islands – without the help of the Enderby Trust scholarship this story would still be a dream.
On first morning of our voyage we awoke at the Snares, with plans for a zodiac cruise along the rocky coast to look for Snares Crested Penguins. What we got instead was 60 knot winds and rain squalls, clearly not zodiac weather. But it was exhilarating to watch the white-capped albatross and sooty shearwaters, masters of the wind, so completely in their element even as we were so completely out of ours. They flew with wings heavily bowed, angled, angular; great looping arcs high above the water, negotiated in double speed. It looked like they had somehow made their wings thinner, like a sailor would reef the mainsail in such conditions. Watching them in this weather felt like flying toy kites in strong wings, when the kite becomes taut from the tension, tugging at the rope, scything through the air, harnessing the power of the wind and mastering it.
We turn away from the islands with a general sense of disappointment, but I feel like I’ve experienced something real, something raw, something we don’t experience at all for the rest of the trip as we are treated to day after day of beautiful weather. I’m glad we experienced the rough of the Southern Ocean. Even though it came at the expense of some penguin photos.
The ocean is a harsh place. Yet, when we think of it as inhospitable, we reflect only our own inadequacy in the water. But for the birds and animals which are well adapted to the open ocean, it is life as normal. And albatrosses are very well adapted to ocean life.
The thing that amazes me most about albatrosses is also key to their success. Their wings. Albatrosses have incredibly long wings. The longest wingspan ever measured in birds belongs to either a Wandering Albatross or a Southern Royal Albatross, at about 3.6 meters depending on who held the tape measure. But perhaps more interesting than outright length is the sheer thinness of the wing. There is a measure in ornithology called wing aspect ratio which describes the shape of a wing, calculated by dividing wing length squared by wing area. Of all extant birds, the albatross surely has the highest wing aspect ratio.
Such an extreme wing is advantageous in some circumstances and not others. I remember one day in 2009 we chanced upon a big Wandering Albatross close to Wollongong harbour in water so calm that it gave us smooth reflections. It tried to take off, flapping furiously and pounding the surface of the water as it ran for a hundred meters, but in the end it simply couldn’t generate enough lift and was forced to settle back onto the water.
Albatrosses need wind passing over the wing to generate lift. Because albatross wings are so long and thin, flapping is quite tiresome and actually doesn’t generate much lift. Instead, when wind passes over the wing, the length of the wing allows it to generate great lift with little drag. They also have a nifty sheet of tendons in their shoulder which allows them to ‘lock’ their wings outstretched without expending any additional energy. In fact, they are so well adapted to continuous flying that their heart rate is roughly similar while gliding as while sleeping on their nest.
About 93% of flight of the Wandering Albatross is gliding or soaring, without flapping. How do they do it? Their secret lies in something called ‘dynamic soaring’. The general idea was first proposed in 1883 by Lord Rayleigh and it is only very recently that scientists have started to understand the mechanism, although still not completely. In essence, the albatross makes use of a wind gradient between the surface, where the wind is slower due to friction with the water, and about 20 m above the surface where there is essentially no effect of friction. Between the surface and 20 m above, the wind speed increases as the albatross gains height. To make use of this gradient, the albatross flies in a series of three-dimensional S curves. Starting close to the surface, they turn into the wind and rise upwards, losing ground speed but gaining height up to 20 m above the ocean; then, at the peak, they turn away from the wind and fly downwind, picking up ground speed but losing height until are back close to the surface. By repeating over and over again, the albatross can almost travel for free, or at least without flapping.
This remarkable technique allows the albatross to travel incredible distances with apparent ease. On a windy day, a large albatross might average 60 or 80 km/h and travel up to 1000 km each day. The nearest competitor in the bird world for this kind of distance are migratory shorebirds, the most extreme of which have been known to fly non-stop routes of up to 11,000 km in nine days. The difference, as Terence Lindsey puts it in his wonderfully accessible book on albatrosses, is that the shorebird then spends the rest of the season recuperating and building up enough fat reserves to do the trip again, whereas albatrosses might comfortably do more than 100,000 km a year with barely a flap of its wings. A team of researchers tracking Grey-headed Albatross at South Georgia found that in the 18 months between breeding attempts, some individuals circumnavigated the Southern Ocean twice, the fastest single circumnavigation in 46 days.
The only caveat to the extraordinary flight of the albatross is that they need wind to fly. It is no surprise, then, that the majority of albatross live in the windiest ocean in the world, the Southern Ocean. Here, the latitudes are nicknamed the roaring forties, the furious fifties and the screaming sixties
Marine scientist Peter Harrison writing in 1983:
“Flight strong and swift, with wings held bowed and angled forward, rising and falling in great arcs. Strength of flight best judged in raging storms, during which I have seen them hanging motionless against the storm some 50 m above the water, strangely gull-like, only to slip into the maelstrom and allow the wind to carry them in a wild and towering flight – a truly remarkable sight.”
A ray of setting sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates a Salvin’s Albatross, suspended forever in a single moment in time. The boat is dipping and rocking and rolling and rising in a rhythmic pattern. Earlier that afternoon we left the comfort of the sheltered harbour at Auckland Island and we’re due to arrive at Campbell Island in the early hours of the morning.
I stand at the bow with Ardie and Annie, watching the albatross glide past. What freedom. I love standing at the tip of the bow, the front of the boat, dipping into the troughs and rising above the waves. It is the most liberating part of the boat. We are lucky the weather is good enough.
We don’t talk, just watch the albatross glide. So free, so peaceful. I watch them as it gets darker and darker and they become more and more blurry in my photos, the shapes more abstract as night approaches. They are still gliding when we lose sight of them in the dark and reluctantly turn to go inside.
It’s funny how some birds can have very similar plumage to others, yet look very different. Birders call this the ‘jizz’ of a bird. The first time I saw Southern Royal Albatross I was struck by how graceful they are. Wandering Albatross are similar in size, overall shape and plumage colour. But royals are somehow graceful and elegant where wanderers are, by comparison at least, a little chunky and out of proportion.
Looking at the Southern Royals on Campbell Island, I am again reminded of how graceful they are. Their necks are long and shapely, their breasts big and curved, almost recalling a swan. Their bills are long with small, well-shaped nostrils and with a black curve running the length of the bill which makes them look like they are smiling. Their eyes are small, gentle, curious.
Every afternoon during summer, the Southern Royals come streaming in from the ocean, flying high above Campbell Island before gradually descending in great sweeping semi-circles to crash land in the grass tussock. They make the most amazing sound when passing overhead, a great breathy ‘whooOOOOOOOOOooosh’, the sound of long feathers ripping air at great speed. The volume is loud but the effect is soft.
Some of the arriving birds are 5 or 6-year-old ‘adolescents’, returning to land for the first time since fledging. In the intervening years, they’ve roamed the Southern Ocean, moving between New Zealand, Australia and Chile, learning how to forage efficiently so that they can eventually support a chick of their own. They’ve finally returned to land to find a partner.
Meeting potential partners is not a task adolescent Southern Royals take lightly. Returning to the island for the first time since fledging, they congregate in small groups of 4 to 8 birds of a similar age. They touch bills, they preen each other, they raise their bills and utter a strange, soft gurgling sound; occasionally they raise their wings to emphasise a point.
Gradually, they narrow down who they hang out with, until eventually they spend all of their time with a single bird. It is a long process which usually takes 2 or 3 summers. Once mated, the pair stay together for life, which, for a southern royal, may be in excess of 60 years.
The years that the albatross spend finding a partner are incredibly important. These years build trust in the relationship between both birds. The bond between the two parents must be strong enough that they trust each other to keep returning. Incubating birds spend a little over a week at a time on the nest, without access to food or water, and rely on their partner to relieve them at the end of their shift. The eggs take about 79 days to hatch. As the chick hatches and grows bigger, both adults spend their whole time at sea separately, searching for food. They may not see each other for months on end, and the only way they know the other is alive is through the health of the chick. About 11 months after the egg was laid, the chick finally fledges and both adults return to the ocean for a year’s break before returning the following year to give it another go.
We are lucky the group of adolescents have assembled close to the boardwalk. As I watch the young albatrosses gathering, gurgling, bill raising, preening each other, I am acutely aware of the importance of what is happening: they are finding their partners for life. But this is no show of strength or amazing endurance or perfect feathers. It is not about who has the longest wings or who has the nicest voice or who has the biggest body. To put it simply, they are getting to know each other. It’s like the albatross version of a singles bar.
I notice five main actions: bill raising, gurgling, shoulder preening, preening another bird, and wing raising. I’m sure if I stayed for days or weeks I would notice more. Sometimes some of the actions happen together, like bill raising and gurgling while wing raising. Sometimes shoulder preening seems to invite another bird to attempt to preen the bird shoulder preening.
Just watching the young birds, I can see their movements are not as coordinated as the established adult pairs. One bird reaches over to preen another and is immediately rebuffed by the bill of the other bird. Perhaps the timing is a bit off, or perhaps the preening just wasn’t accepted. It feels to me like the young birds are not yet quite on the same wavelength.
Two birds gradually peel off from the main group. They look more comfortable with each other. Perhaps they met last year and are starting to develop a relationship. I watch them for an hour as they take turns preening each other. They are so gentle with each other, repeating the same moves over and over and over again. They’ve got all the time in the world. No point rushing into an albatross marriage when there’s another 50 years to go.
I wish I had all the time in the world here. Or at least another hour; day; week. Too soon, the last staff member signals to us that we need to head back down.
I walk in silence, quickly, as we have to make it down by 7pm to catch the last zodiac back to the ship. There are three others with me, but I don’t want to talk about what we’ve just seen, what we’ve just experienced, what we’ve just been a part of. I try to let it settle, enjoy it, respect it. I feel like I have finally come to visit the albatross at their remote worlds, like how I imagined in 2009. There is something so peaceful, harmonious, elegant, and joyful – an inner kind of gentle and radiant joy. Everything feels right in this place.
This is a place where time stands still; or, perhaps, it is timeless. Precious. Vulnerable. It is when visiting places like these that we are acutely aware of the custodianship we’ve bestowed upon ourselves, and of our responsibility to protect this planet and all its inhabitants for millennia to come.
Lance Tickell’s definitive book on all things to do with albatross biology.
Tickell, W.L.N. 2000. Albatrosses. Pica Press, London.
Terence Lindsey’s wonderfully accessible book about what makes albatrosses are so unique.
Lindsey, T. 2008. Albatrosses. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.
Tui de Roy’s gorgeous photographic account of her encounters with all of the world’s albatrosses.
De Roy, T., Jones, M. & Fitter, J. 2008. Albatross: their world, their ways. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.